Were Dr Walter Rodney alive and in Jamaica today, the old women and child hustlers in the garbage strewn streets in Down Town Kingston, who are straining and sucking salt beneath Jamaica’s poverty line, would have had the benefit of an eloquent and erudite voice, debating in defence of their humanity.
There is an exigent need for the emergence of other regional scholar-activists of parallel or superior faculties, given that Dr Rodney was murdered in Guyana more than three decades ago in 1980 by Gregory Smith, a double agent and former officer in the late Forbes Burnham’s then ruling People’s National Congress (PNC).
On October 17, 1968, twelve years before his premature death and a day after he was barred from re-entering Jamaica after he left U.W.I for a black writers conference in Canada, the Honourable Hugh L. Shearer-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) government released its ‘Text of Statement’, in which Dr Rodney was said to be a “threat to national security”.
Described as having “a rare gift of intellect” by Barbadian scholar George Lamming, Dr Rodney was a star pupil in his native Guyana. He received a scholarship (1960) to pursue history at UWI Mona, then the University College of the West Indies (UCWI), graduating with honours in 1963.
In 1966, at age 24, he completed his doctoral thesis on “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800” (published in 1970) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. In that same year he migrated to Tanzania in East Africa, where he lectured at the University of Dar-es-Salaam for two years.
In early 1968, he returned to UWI Mona to teach a course in African History. By October of 1968, he was branded persona non grata by the government, a move that provoked violent riots in Kingston and inspired a surge in the production of black protest literature within Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.
Why did the government take such draconian actions against the 26 year old historian?
In ‘Groundings: Walter Rodney, the activist; scholar and revolutionary in Jamaica and Guyana’, an article published on the 25th anniversary of Rodney’s death in 2005, Nigel Westmaas, an historian and former member of Rodney’s Working People’s Alliance (W.P.A), wrote:
“… He was very active in the social and political life of Jamaica. He worked closely with the poor people and with Rastafarians in Kingston and other sections of the country”.
According to academic and literary critic Al Creighton, whose article: ‘The Walter Rodney factor in West Indian literature’, appeared in Guyana’s Stabroek News Paper on July 18, 2000:
“Walter Rodney had attracted their (the government) attention because of his venturing beyond the safe boundaries of the campus to teach African History in some of the more depressed communities…”
Rodney’s ‘Groundings’ and cerebral assaults against the imperialistic, “white-hearted” Government; the repressive ruling elite and the “rum-sipping soul selling intellectuals of Mona” were scathing and surgical.
His 1969 book, ‘Groundings with my Brothers’, which detailed his experiences as a scholar-activist in Jamaica, paralleled the best protest literature at the time, such as American James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’, which was published a few years earlier.
Rodney had many irreducible objections to the ‘systems’ that governed the Jamaican state.
In ‘Statement on the Jamaica Situation’, his first essay in ‘Groundings with my Brothers’, he wrote:
“It was only natural that imperialism and its local lackeys should have intensified the oppression of our black brothers. But, paradoxical as it may appear, they have been forced to create a psychological prop to their system of domination, the myth of a harmonious, multiracial national society – ‘Out of Many, One People’ – as the National Motto pretends. In this way they are hoping that the black masses will never organise independently in their own interests”.
“Ninety-five percent of the Jamaican population is clearly black, the other 5 percent is divided into these shades, and we are told we have many peoples.”
In 1964, the remains of The Right Honourable Marcus Garvey were returned to Jamaica from England by the government, chiefly by the efforts of Honourable Edward Seaga. Garvey was promptly declared Jamaica’s first National Hero. Shortly after, Paul Bogle was enshrined with the same honour.
Rodney viewed this as a hypocritical propitiation of the black majority who were becoming increasingly wary of the tyrannical minority. This was not unlike what the current government (People’s National Party – PNP) is aiming to achieve by introducing Garvey’s philosophies to high schools students and awarding reggae singer, recalcitrant and iconoclast Peter Tosh, the Order of Merit, Jamaica’s third highest honour.
Throughout the 1960s, the government simultaneously led the ‘external’ anti-apartheid movement against South Africa’s racialist Nationalist Party, devotedly conceptualised and sponsored the International Human Rights Year, welcomed His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie to the island; while in the same breath, they felt:
“…sufficiently threatened by the power of the example of struggle to carry through the banning of Brothers Stokey Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and James Forman. Even more damning has been the prohibition of the liberation literature of Carmichael, Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed…”
In 1968, 30 percent of Jamaica’s potential work force was unemployed, including one out of every three, 15- to 25-year-old. This perturbed Dr Rodney.
The Honourable Hugh L. Shearer, in August 1967, sanctioned the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s (JCF) procrustean and callous treatment of ordinary Jamaicans when he stated that: “The police force under this government is not reciting beatitudes to anybody.”
He later added that the police whenever confronted with ‘criminals’ should not stop to find out what distance was between themselves and the criminals before ‘setting them alight’… Between August 1967 and April 1968 there were at least 31 people who were set alight by police guns, 16 of them dying on the spot.”
Rodney believed that “the black intellectual, the black academic must attach himself to the activity of the black masses.”
Chastising his “rum-sipping soul selling” UWI colleagues, he said: “The system will give you a nice house, a front lawn, a car, a reasonable bank balance. They will say, ‘Sell your black soul’. That is the condition upon which you exist as a so-called intellectual in the society.”
He continued: “I was prepared to make these statements in public and around me there gathered a nucleus and a movement was born calling itself the Black Power Movement.
“I was prepared to go anywhere a group of black were prepared to sit down and talk and listen… It might be in a sports club, it might be in a schoolroom, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully. I have spoken in what people call ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps, for that is where people live in Jamaica… That is where the government puts people to live. Indeed, the government does not even want them to live in rubbish dumps… because they bulldoze them off the rubbish dumps and send them to God knows where.
“I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage, and some black brothers and I grounded together…I was contributing my experience in travelling, in reading, my analysis and I was also gaining…”
By visiting and listening to them within their socio-economic spaces, Dr Rodney helped to authenticate the wisdom and wishes of the disempowered black majority. He lifted their consciousness to the level of creative protest and spontaneous resistance against the historically repressive state.
It was not surprising, Nigel Westmaas wrote that “The Minister of Home Affairs was very blunt and direct on the nature of the ‘threat’ posed by Rodney: ‘In my term of office, and in reading the records of problems in this country. I have never come across a man who offers a greater threat to the security of this land than does Walter Rodney.’”
“The Jamaica Labour Party government led by Hugh Shearer,” Al Creighton observed, “belonged emphatically to the right, a position it fiercely defended by marshalling such forces as police activity, the banning of literature and persons, among other impositions.
“One was allowed to be as revolutionary as one fancied within the Ivory Tower on the campus at Mona… but bringing such dangerous academic activity out in the local communities… was not to be tolerated”.
In response to the ban, dissidents burnt 50 Jamaica Omnibus Service (JOS) buses, started 14 major fires throughout Kingston, shut down the UWI for two weeks and generally wreaked havoc in the streets. That didn’t ‘trouble’ the JLP government, because a year later in 1969, Dr Clive Y. Thomas, another UWI lecturer and Guyanese scholar-activist was inexplicably expelled.
The people of Jamaica continue to survive and hope, not because of the historical actions of the JLP or the present government, the People’s National Party (PNP), but in spite of them.
Beyond 1968, both parties would go on to plant innumerable seeds of violence and corruption in public and private sector organisations. Today we are reaping the bitter fruits of that: a national debt of 1.68 trillion – the seventh most indebted country in the world; an average of 0.8 percent economic growth for the past 40 years; a high school education system that turns outs north of 20,000 students yearly, who enter the world without one CXC subject; 1.2 million people living under the poverty line or on less than J$212 a day; 400,000 backlogged cases in our courts; one of the most corrupt countries on earth; 1,400 murders a year, on average; unemployment; lawlessness, multiple-cases of child sexual abuse daily, decadence, hopelessness.
The banning, interposition and vilification of people like Dr Rodney by the state will likely take centre-stage in conditions such as these, as well as the appeasement of the masses, by granting their heroes national awards after they are dead and silent.
To refuse acceptance of these posthumous awards is to keep alive the memory of Dr Rodney who relinquished his ‘status’ as a UWI academic and risked his life to bring clarity and hope to the daily ups and downs of the masses. This has never been the mandate of either of the two major political parties.
George Lamming, in his address to the people of Guyana ‘on the murder of Rodney’ in 1980, said Dr Rodney was “first of all, a serious man. And that, in our territories, does not always make for comfort”. Now is an opportune time for more serious men to incite discomfort within our territories!
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